Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Two Indias

For a while now, I have been reading an interesting and engagingly written book by young British science journalist and author, Angela Saini, titled: Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World. I would perhaps write a review of the book once I am done. In this post, however, I am going to share a few observations from the book that struck an immediate chord with me. I call it 'The Curious Case of Two Indias', referring to a strangely split personality of the country I was born and grew up in. India is, at once, progressive and retrogressive, modern and medieval, scientific and superstitious - a contradiction of existence; the book Geek Nation has ample illustrations of this dichotomy. I refer to a part that relates to my own experience.

I was born to and raised by parents who practise the Hindu religion, and for a large part of my life, I was a believer; although never overly fond of rituals, I professed to have religious faith, an unquestioning belief in a higher power. The belief was not taught, but came naturally to me as a consequence of the environment I grew up in. To my parents, the Hindu religion (I avoid the term 'Hinduism' in this context) was a philosophy, with a unifying theme of 'One god - many manifestations' - that easily included the god-heads of other religions of the world; it was a kind, understanding, all-embracing way of life, that taught temperance, the value of life and love, and worship through discharge of duties to the fellow human being - in other words, completely orthogonal to the the kind of teeth-gnashing, attention-seeking, intemperate, uncivil hooliganism that has become the face of Hindu-ism in modern India. To my mother in particular, the Hindu religion was a matter of such basic and deep spiritual understanding that she never stood much on ceremonies and rituals.

Growing up in this environment, I never really felt any clash between my spirituality and my science education, because I felt that the two belonged to two completely different non-intersecting planes. As I know now, this compartmentalization signifies a tremendous cognitive dissonance. As a working science-researcher, I have become accustomed to dealing with, and relying on, empirical evidence arising out of the scientific method, and to me, science and rational thinking have become a way of life. The fact - that spirituality, faith and religious belief are not subject to the same rigorous standards of evidence as science is, and must be handled at a different plane - frankly makes me uncomfortable, more so when I realize that I, not too long ago, was subject to the same phenomenon of dissonance. Yet, everyday, millions of people in India - scientists, engineers, doctors, professionals amongst them - seem to easily reconcile their belief systems with their professions and daily lives.

An echo of this is to be found in the words of Sanal Edamaraku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, a small but growing organization that strives to debunk instances of pseudoscience, superstition and mysticism. In Geek Nation, Saini interviewed him about his views on the split personality of the country that revealed itself during her research [Cf. Saini, Angela (2011-03-03). Geek Nation (pp. 128-129). Hodder & Stoughton]. Here are some snippets from that conversation.
There are two Indias [said Edamaruku] One that is modern, with science, and another India which is living in the Middle Ages. And these two Indias are going at the same time... Some people live in the modern world and periodically they go into the other world. They have two lives. For example, when a scientist consults an astrologer for the appropriate time for the marriage of his daughter, where is the scientific approach there? He’s the scientist by profession but he does not use his scientific approach or his scientific mind when it comes to his private life. There are two compartments.
It is an expression of the said compartmentalization when one finds in modern India, scientists seeking professional advice from astrologers and sporting ten astrological gemstones in ten fingers hoping to ward off the evil influences of planets of the zodiac. Or, when professional functions, including scientific conferences, are inaugurated by invoking the blessings of some deity or the other. In order to understand how this happens, one needs to comprehend the inner workings of religion in India, indicates Edamaruku.
Hinduism – the faith practised by the majority – is ‘not seen as a die-hard practising religion,’ he explains. Although millions of Hindus may pray regularly at shrines in their homes, and never fail to mark religious festivals, it’s a faith that puts few demands on the everyday believer. This separation between the spiritual and the practical is what has allowed people to fit their traditions and religious habits into their normal lives without worrying whether the two conflict. This may even be why India never went through a European-style Enlightenment, which split religion and superstition from science. There simply wasn’t a distinction between them.
However, as signified by the rise of Religious Right in the social and political arena, Hinduism has become more organised and focused, increasingly behaving like the more dogmatic and fundamentalist religions like Christianity and Islam. Notes Edamaruku:
... this has all been accompanied by a growing tendency, especially among India’s educated middle classes, to try to justify their faith in scientific terms... There appears to be a growing trend to prove that new ideas or foreign inventions have Hindu roots.
Some religious scholars (such as the ones from the Indian Academy of Sanskrit Research, who were interviewed by Saini) are working to find evidence of science in the ancient Hindu religious scriptures, the Vedas, and have - incredibly - come up with stories about ancient flying saucers and alien visits. To Edamaruku, this signifies "... an underlying religious agenda to prove that the scriptures are all-knowing." This is something of a paradigm shift in the appreciation of 'science', or more precisely, the apparent authority, certainty and prestige, that science represents to these people. Says Edamaruku:
[He has] met a lot of people who simply swallow these kinds of things. They want some kind of scientific justification for their beliefs and if they get a fabricated concept, they will immediately accept it. They want to accept everything that is in modern science and say this was there in our ancient texts... They want sanction from science... Earlier they would blindly reject scientific approach of science; now they want scientific proof for what they believe...
This kind of ambivalence about science is perhaps the direct result of the discomfort that religious believers increasingly feel in the modern world. Finding no explanation for various observable phenomena in their religious texts, they seek to shanghai modern science and scientific explanations - without really understanding them - to suit their emotional needs. Notes Edamaruku:
Instead of ignoring the theory of evolution, they will say that the seven incarnations of the god Vishnu are like the different stages of evolution. Or for example, nuclear bombs. Many people say that the special arrows, which according to the old legends the epic Hindu hero Arjuna had, they would multiply in power by ten when he drew one. They say that’s like an atom bomb or something. People actually defend such positions.
It is exactly this credulous mentality that once prompted Professor Meghnad Saha, the noted Indian Physicist, to remark sarcastically, "sobi byaade aase" (Everything is contained in the Vedas). Yet, it persists. Meera Nanda, a historian and researcher at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study in Delhi, has been studying for a long time the complicated relationship between religion and science in India. When interviewed by Saini [Cf. Saini, Angela (2011-03-03). Geek Nation (p. 130-132). Hodder & Stoughton], she indicates that in part, the problem lies with the current education system in India which emphasizes rote-memorization of facts, but little critical thinking. She says:
I could tell you some horror stories about Indian education. When I was at school, Indian science was taught in this old scholastic manner, in which there was no critical thinking required. There was no process of forming a hypothesis and doing controlled experimentations. The critical engagement, you know, asking questions, it was just missing. You could go through science education without ever applying the factoid of what you have learned in your science class to the reality of what you are living in. You just don’t! They are two different worlds. You just don’t relate, let’s say, Newtonian law to miracles.
To Nanda the historian, the roots of this issues go way deep. She explains:
Indians encountered modern science through colonial education and it was very clear that something quite fundamentally different had emerged in the West which could be empirically tested, and which could be explained without invoking God. I mean you could explain the workings of nature without invoking any creator god, using theories from Newton down to Darwin. So there we were. We were confronted with modern science, we were studying it, we could run those locomotives, we could see its power and we could see those laws worked. We were attracted to it but at the same time, because it was brought to us by the colonial power, there was this aggressive defensiveness about India, about our own culture.
Nanda opines that this is how was born the concept of the so-called Vedic science - purported evidence of scientific accomplishments hidden in the Vedas - pushed even today by Indian politicians associated with the ultra-traditionalist Religious Right. One cannot help noticing the striking similarities of this Vedic 'science' with the origin and precepts of Intelligent Design creationism and Creation 'science' vigorously espoused by many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in the West and the Middle East. Explains Nanda:
It was a very aggressive way of defending your own faith... And not just defending it, but projecting it as superior. Spiritual gurus began to argue more and more loudly that the wonders of modern science were something that ancient Hindus already knew. It started with small spiritual ideas, like the quantum physics theory that all the particles in the universe are interconnected, mixed with the idea that human consciousness is also part of an interconnected whole...
Over time, the religious zealots and their preceptors alike continued to push the bizarre, tortured links between science and Hindu mythology; for example, from the mythical stories about gods gallivanting in floating chariots, arose the notion that India possessed aircrafts and flying technology, centuries ago. A little later in the book, Saini illustrates how strenuously some believers - in her example, the religious scholars she met at the Academy of Sanskrit Research - continue to adhere to these ludicrous notions. Nanda explains further to Saini this zeal to (mis)appropriate scientific achievements by religion:
Later on, when European physicists identified the atom, Hindu nationalists began to claim that early Indians had already written that the smallest particles were the size of a human hair divided into a hundred parts, with each part divided again into a hundred – coincidentally, not far from the actual size of an atom. Every historical accident and religious metaphor was brought into the mix. Recently, some people have suggested that plastic surgery and biotechnology are Hindu in origin. In some cases, Indian scientists really did make an early contribution to these fields. In other cases, religious believers are simply rewriting history through the prism of their faith.
Understandably, the work of Meera Nanda (incidentally, a Templeton Foundation fellow in Religion and Science, 2005-7) is not very palatable to the Hindu fundamentalists in India. But I have found a great deal of congruence with the words of both Edamaruku and Nanda, as narrated in Geek Nation. A while back (long before Geek Nation even existed) I came to realize an awful truth about my upbringing, my country, my shielded existence up to a certain point: shrouded in swathes of religious faith, I have been intellectually blind and ignorant. I felt ashamed, small and inadequate.

Riding on that realization came this tremendous sense of betrayal: nothing in my prior life had prepared me for the reality of the world around me. None of my education had truly opened my eyes or inculcated any questioning attitude. Nothing ever goaded me to see clearly the gaping disconnect (that was now obvious) between my science education and the quavering tendrils of my (erstwhile) faith. The two Indias without were also two Indias within - one traditional and one rational, and my rationality never had a chance to flourish. But, no more. That realization finally broke the spell, and I freed myself from the insidious snares of religious belief. The account of that journey, from untruth to reality, from intellectual darkness to enlightenment, is for another day.

Book referenced:
Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World
Author: Angela D. Saini
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (March 2011)


  1. This is one of the most incredible blog posts I have ever read - thank you so much...!!

    In parts it's as if you've read my mind and written my opinions for me :-). I too grew up in a Hindu household and became a scientist and rationalist, although I'll come to a way in which I may differ from you later. Either way I identify with what you've written here immensely. Particularly the part about dissonance between actions and so-called beliefs.

    I wonder if there's also another reason for the insistence on a literal interpretation of the Vedas etc, and hence the rather desperate attempts to science-ize the scriptures. That is, the abject failure of ordinary people to see the Mahabharata/Ramayana/Gita/Vedas/Upanishads etc as allegorical - as something more than a human story that signifies a moral code, something to be interpreted literally.

    If we saw the ten heads of Raavana as an allegory, a simile, as something that represents his immense intelligence and arrogance, then we wouldn't be tempted to search for pseudo-scientific explanations for him actually having ten heads - cos he didn't. Likewise the powerful arrows; they're all a literary tool employed to embellish an essential human morality tale, not some sort of accurate newsreel reporting of real events.

    This goes back to the critical thinking point - whilst we are taught to analyse scientific things, we are taught to accept religious teaching at face value - widening the gap between reality and myth.

    Having said that, and I say this with all respect, I don't think all practice that is religious in nature is worthless. I personally don't need to believe in a God in the conventional sense, as I like you see how the world works through the laws of nature, but I still see value in collective contemplation and reflection that others call prayer - I just invoke the Force rather than praying to a God. I also see the value of Hindu (and for that matter other religious) teaching when it comes to morality codes - I just wish that these could be separated out from the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo superstition that clouds enlightened thinking in so much that goes on in India and amongst the diaspora.

    anyway the Geek Nation has been on my reading list since publication and I must now get round to reading it!!

    Cheers - oh and in a possibly ironic twist, Happy Diwali :-)

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Prateek. I don't disagree at all with what you said here, except - perhaps - at one point. You don't think that all practice that is religious in nature is worthless. I'd beg to differ in a subtle way. I'd say: all practice that is worthy remains worthy whether performed for a religious reason or not. However, in that context, one must pay heed to the statutory caution offered by Christopher Hitchens, namely, 'Religion poisons everything'. I agree with you also about the morality codes, but - I am sure you understand it too - morality and ethics do not stem from religious teachings or need the crutches of religion. Sanity and rationality demand a moral and ethical way of life, if you think about it.

    Anyway, do try to start with Geek Nation ASAP. Angela has done a great job with it.